Tag: loss

thing 14: ‘the dearest freshness deep down things’: lamb-hunting

Call me Ishmael.

Don’t worry, though. I’m not talking harpoons or shotguns here. It’s just that I do get possessed, each spring, by a need to find and gaze upon lambs—the wobblier and boing-ier the better. The obsession comes on really strong in early February and lasts till Mayish, when wild-swimming fever takes over. So there was never any question that lamb-hunting would be a Thing.

And now it’s time! It is a bright cold day in February and the flocks are dotting the green. Well-swaddled, I (read more…)

‘pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’: some new books

It’s new-book-joy time again, so kettle on, phone off, biscuits out…

A couple of new poetry books have gone into the WTAK collection. The Art of Losingedited by Kevin Young, and In Memoriam: Poems of Bereavement, introduced by Carol Ann Duffy, are both now nestled on the anthologies shelf. The second was a Christmas present (thanks, Naomi!); the first has been my companion for a while.

You can read more about them on the bookshelf pages (hover over the titles). Here, I’ll content myself with saying that, while the first is a long, comprehensive book and the second a mere slip of a slim volume, both are very approachable. And both are wonderful things to offer someone who might be going through loss—or to have on hand if you yourself are in need of comfort and companionship during a grief. Even if neither of those applies, though, these are simply great collections of poems, doing what all good poetry does: reminding us of what it is to be human, reminding us that, almost certainly, whatever we are experiencing, we are not alone in it.


‘In Memoriam: Poems of Bereavement’, edited by Carol Ann Duffy

In her introduction, Duffy reveals the intention behind this collection: ‘we hope that these poems… will hold your hand’. The image, taken from one of the poems included in the book, is simple, clear, effective: it’s about comfort and companionship, recognition and acknowledgement. And I’d say the book does what Duffy puts on the tin.

There’s a mixture of poems you’re likely to have encountered already and poems which are probably new; similarly, there are a lot of familiar voices—Tennyson, Rosetti, Thomas, St. Vincent Millay, Thomas, and Duffy herself—as well as new ones, and anonymous/traditional texts too. Some are suitable for reading at a funeral or memorial; some feel more intimate. I particularly like the fact that such a range of moods is represented in this volume: shocked, angry, bewildered, wry, consoled, consoling, defiant, felled by loss… even in such a small book, something to find you in most moods.

And if you’re new to the poetry of loss, this would be a great place to start.


‘When Death Comes’, Mary Oliver

You can read this poem here.

Whenever I’ve shared poetry in groups, and we’ve explored this poem, it has always had resonances for the participants. Whether the groups are about loss, mortality, love of nature, mindfulness, the search for meaning, ways to live more happily in this bewildering, bruising but also beautiful world… whatever the immediate focus, people find nourishment in this poem. It speaks to them.

The images of death are so simple, but so powerful. That death should ‘[snap] the purse shut’ calls to my mind those old-fashioned purses with the cross-over clasps with spheres on the end of little stalks, which slide across and past each other and shut with such satisfying conviction. I can feel them ‘snap’ home under my fingers as I read those words. Death as a ‘hungry bear in autumn’, feeding urgently, because it must, and willing to take whatever it comes across; death as the dreadful shock of the ‘iceberg between the shoulder blades’—something that dwarfs us and mows us down, without malice or intention, simply because of what it is, and where we happen to be… I find these images unforgettable.

How amazing, though, is where, in Oliver’s hands, these images lead us. Not to lamentation (or not explicitly); but rather, to an honouring of what unites us; to an openness to possibilities; to an acceptance that we all must ‘tend towards silence’; to an honouring of all life as something ‘precious’: and to the determination to live as vividly, intensely, fully as possible. That importance of the distinction between visiting and living isn’t spelled out, but has a quiet profundity which convinces me entirely. This poem gives me a way to think about how I want to live: I don’t want simply to be a visitor here: I want to live here, to belong here, to be a fully-involved citizen of this world, for as long as I am given. And Oliver even suggests how we may do this: by being both bride and bridegroom, ‘married to amazement’, and ‘taking the world in [our] arms’. That might not entirely prevent me being ‘sighing and frightened,/or full of argument’, but it it feels like the very most I can do to minimise that.

Thank you, Mary. I’m so grateful for this poem.

‘Water’, Philip Larkin

You can read this poem here.

This poem has a unsentimental but quietly beautiful sense of longing in it, which may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the angrier, more bitter bits of himself which Larkin often shares. I love the idea of him getting ‘called in’ as a religion construction engineer (“Hello, Phil…? We’ve got a job in your area—are you available?”); but who better, perhaps, than him, as someone who, in the absence of faith, finds the contemplation of death so desperately terrifying? It doesn’t seem surprising, either, that he should see religion as as something ‘construct[ed]’. In ‘Aubade’ he refers to it as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’. A man-made construct: intricate, ornate, dense, beautiful perhaps, but ultimately something fabricated to soften and conceal something starker; something ‘motheaten’, too, which is wearing out; and not something concerned with how we might live, but only with how we might face dying. Eeeek. As so often with Larkin, I move between deep and relieved empathy with configurations of him as glimpsed through the poetry (“we read to know we are not alone…”), and an equal sense of relief that I don’t always feel as he does. I’m interested, too, that in both ‘Aubade’ and ‘Water’ he seems to conflate religion and faith. Surely, Philip, they are different things?

It’s as though this poem is haunted by the ghost of belief, echoing as it is with the significance of water in many spiritual traditions. Stanza two, for instance, evokes Christian’s crossing of the river in The Pilgrim’s Progress; and there are obvious recollections of baptism in the ‘furious devout drench’. I love it that it’s a ‘furious devout drench’: that suggests such passion, such intensity, such need and desperation. And ‘dry, different clothes’ is so economical: ‘dry’ evokes a restoration of comfort, a relief, while ‘different’ acknowledges the absoluteness of the change belief would bring about. He/we would not be the same after this ‘sousing’— could never experience the world, and life, in the same way again.

But these are all conditional verbs: ‘If I were called in…I should… Would entail… would employ…I should raise’. ‘Water’ offers a vision of something beautiful, certainly: ‘any-angled light’ is a dazzling phrase, simple, mysterious and coruscating, like the thing it describes. But though Larkin can conjure this vision so vividly, he cannot, in the end, see it with his heart—cannot give felt assent to it. A teetering thing built on ‘If’ as the opening word, ‘Water’ captures a longing, an impulse which, though powerful, can find nowhere to go. It’s not one of those poems which constructs an argument. It leads nowhere. And in this its form enacts something of its content (which I think much great poetry does). Larkin is articulating something in himself which finds no real issue—a spiritual sense without form to embody it or trust to allow it to flow. There’s an inability to resolve which leaves us hanging, ‘endlessly’. Such yearning, such an absence of what to do with it. Oh, the hole where faith might once have been…

Pass the biscuits, would you? I need my post-Larkin carb-fix…